Rays’ biggest flaw so far? Here’s a case for the defense

BOSTON — Hitting and run production are going to vacillate during a season, and the Rays would like to believe they’re on an upswing. Their pitchers, like others, go through struggles that seem to spread, then suddenly morph into staff-wide runs of can-you-top-this success.

But there is no good reason why the Rays can’t catch the ball and execute plays — both routine and highlight-quality — on a more regular basis.

“Run prevention and playing good defense is, I think, pretty essential to us having success,” manager Kevin Cash said. “We’ve been so good at it for so many years. I think the players here have not played to their capabilities defensively.”

Not even close to their usual standards.

Under Monday’s update of Sports Info Solutions’ Defensive Runs Saved metric, the Rays at minus-19 rank 27th among the 30 major-league teams. They had negative ratings every position except catcher (which was zero).

For context, in the era since they changed from the Devil Rays before the 2008 season (which includes nine playoff appearances), the Rays have finished lower than 12th only twice.

“If we want to play the Rays’ game,” bench coach Rodney Linares said, “we have to play better on defense.”

Cash was blunt two weeks ago, saying the team’s defense was “not major-league standard” and certainly “not Tampa Bay Rays standard,” and considered it the biggest disappointment in its frustrating start. He reiterated that assessment Monday but added that he and the coaches have noted recent improvement, including a return of some “highlight” plays.

“We’re working hard,” said third-base and infield coach Brady Williams. “Guys are putting work in to improve their first step, to improve just their quickness. It’s gotten better over the last week or so. At least in my eyes, it’s gotten better.”

Breakdowns have come at both ends of the spectrum.

“We’re not consistent on converting what should be outs into outs,” Cash said. “And — you don’t even have to say ‘extraordinary’ — we are not making the ‘rangy’ play that we have grown accustomed to making. We’re not covering the ground, whether on the dirt or on the grass.”

Reasons for the dropoff are varied.

One is who they have on the field.

Several solid to superb defensive players have been missing, such as infielders Brandon Lowe and Taylor Walls due to injury, and Wander Franco because of legal issues.

Some of the replacements and new acquisitions have needed, and still need, time to get adjusted to different positions and roles, as well as each other and the Rays’ way of doing things.

That group includes Amed Rosario (a career infielder who got lots of outfield time early), Jose Caballero (who switched from second base to shortstop), Richie Palacios (who also moves between the outfield and infield), and the since-demoted Curtis Mead (a natural third baseman who had issues when playing second base).

“The personnel is different,” Linares said. “We’re missing some pieces. We have some guys playing every day for the first time in the big leagues. We’ve had a couple guys playing maybe out of position at times.”

Added Williams: “You’ll probably see the defense improve just because of more reps.”

Another reason is the play of some returnees.

Centerfielder Jose Siri, who the Rays consider a game-changing defender, had a bad first month with several notable misplays and was pulled from an April game due to a lack of hustle.

Neither corner infielder, Isaac Paredes or Yandy Diaz, is particularly strong defensively, and Linares said Paredes has been dealing with some nagging injury issues.

“You have some guys that are probably playing a little hampered, like Paredes, playing a lot this year,” Linares said. “And overall, I think we’ve really hit a stretch of bad luck, especially with our outfield defense. You have guys like Siri that are kind of elite defenders, and he’s made some really bad plays out there where he’s dropped some 90% (probable catches) or 95%-ers. I think that hits a lot on their defensive stats.”

A third reason is how the Rays have played.

For example, many of their pitchers are lax holding runners on base, leading to the Rays giving up an American League-most 39 steals. Their 83% rate is fourth-worst, which also reflects on the catchers.

Less tangibly, Linares said that when players are struggling offensively it can carry over to their defense, such as how much attention they pay to the batter-specific positioning data they are provided.

“Especially when you’re not playing good, a lot of these guys do not follow the card a lot,” he said, “and I think that’s part of it.”

Plus, through the first month, capped by a dismal 1-5 road trip that ended May 1 in Milwaukee, there was a noticeable lack of energy on the field and in the dugout.

“I think the past week has been better than we played all year,” starter Zach Eflin. “I think it comes from the intensity and the energy, right?

“Us as pitchers, we’re never going to get mad if there’s an error when there’s energy and intensity. We’re always going to try to have their backs. And vice versa, I’m going to make bad pitches. …

“So it’s nice to be able to feel that energy behind you. And to be able to trust making your pitches so that you can put the ball in play and have guys behind you make the play. … And it’s got to be every single game.”

There have been some highlights.

Caballero, overall, has been “awesome,” Cash said. Palacios, forced back into the infield with Josh Lowe’s return to rightfield, has been a significant upgrade at second base over Mead and Rosario. Despite his offensive struggles, Randy Arozarena has played well in leftfield.

In the challenge of quantifying defense, everything matters. The team defensive runs stats are compiled by adding the totals of players at each position, which are calculated using several elements (such as degree of difficulty of plays, range, positioning, etc.) to determine how many runs a defender saved or cost his team compared to others at his position.

By other team standards, the Rays also are down: Their .984 fielding percentage ranks 18th, their 0.3 Ultimate Zone Rating 18th, their .697 defensive efficiency 20th.

The Rays feel the missteps are due more to a series of bad plays than bad players. Through extra work, additional conversations and lineup changes (such as playing Jonny DeLuca ahead of Siri in center at times), they are determined to continue to push for improvement.

“Ultimately, we have to get better,” Linares said. “It’s really important. You can’t control hitting. You can control what you do on defense.”

Glove love

Here is the ranking, from best to worst, of team defense based on Sports Info Solutions’ Defensive Runs Saved metric:

1. Dodgers 33

2. Royals 32

3. Blue Jays 27

4. Rangers 25

5. Yankees 20

6. Guardians 19

7. Braves 18

8. Diamondbacks 16

9. Mariners 14

10. Orioles 13

10. Red Sox 13

12. Cardinals 10

13. Tigers 8

14. Padres 4

14. Rockies 4

16. Phillies 0

17. Brewers -2

18. Giants -3

19. Pirates -4

20. Reds -6

20. Cubs -6

22. Angels -8

22. A’s -8

24. Astros -9

25. Nationals -11

26. Twins -13

27. Rays -19

28. Mets -22

29. Marlins -24

30. White Sox -27

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